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Visiting ghost towns invites reflection on the ‘ghosts’ who once lived there

25 Apr

This article originally appeared in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin on April 25, 2008.

I had to blink my eyes to relieve the pressure. Hours of tracing tumbleweed-strewn back roads- intently checking each curve against our topo maps- had made my eyeballs feel like overfilled basketballs. We had reached what I call the “blur point,” where all scenery seems to blend confusingly together into an boundless abstract vista.

To be sure, the ghost town of Frisco in western Beaver County is much easier to find in daylight. But for reasons I may never comprehend, my friends and I rarely reach a destination before nightfall. This night was no exception. John navigated his jeep over craggy trails as Tyler studied our maps with his headlamp. I poured through the information I had compiled, reading aloud the parts referring to Frisco as “Utah’s Dodge City”- about the daily violence that plagued the boom town- about the Nevada sheriff who was called in to clean things up and shot 6 men dead his first night on the job.

John backtracked and tried another offshoot from SR-21. His headlights illuminated a weathered picket fence, and behind it the old Frisco graveyard. Some of the graves were marked with crumbling headstones, the rest with simple wooden crosses. Other plots were visible but unmarked. Shreds of some kind of material hung from many of the crosses, waving silently in the breeze. Nearly illegible names and dates from the late 1800’s evoked thoughts of the people who lived and died in this forgotten town.

Utah is home to a healthy share of ghost towns. Some were railroad towns- glorified pitstops along travel or shipping routes. Many were elaborate mining camps, like Ophir and Mercur in the Oquirrhs. When travel routes changed or mines stopped producing, the towns died out. Some sites, like the Benson Grist Mill, died but were preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” Some coded but were revived by new mining operations or tourism. Most, however, died and were forgotten- skeletons of rock and wood- still standing only because they’re so far isolated from modern life. The bulk of Tooele County’s ghost towns fit this description.

The term “ghost town” is a loose classification. The generally accepted definition of a ghost town is any place that is a shadow of its past glory. Under this definition, a town can have an active population and still be considered a legitimate ghost town. The sparsely populated town of Gold Hill in western Tooele County is an example of what ghost town buffs classify as an “almost ghost.” The nearby town of Clifton is completely abandoned and is thus considered a “true ghost.”

When most people think of ghost towns, they imagine a western movie set, complete with false front buildings, spooky cemeteries, and saloon doors creaking in the wind. Indeed, that Hollywood image is based in truth, and most of the more established Old West towns did more or less fit that mold. In reality, ghosttowns range from collections of preserved buildings (like Ophir) to scant ruins hardly identifiable without a history book (like West Dip).

My passion for ghost towns was sparked in college when my history professor mentioned exploring ghosttowns in the Nevada desert. My mind filled with images of dusty Main Streets, so I asked him to tell me more. Later, Tyler, John, and I sat around Professor Case’s table and studied brittle maps. Equipped only with wide-eyed excitement, we drove west and located several ghost towns in central Nevada.

That first trip inspired a long-term quest to locate and visit as many Utah ghost towns as possible. Because most remote parts of Tooele County remain undeveloped, our neck of the wilderness is an explorer’s paradise. One of the county’s most unique ghost towns is Iosepa in Skull Valley.

Settled in 1889 by Hawaiian converts to the Mormon faith, the town was laid out in classic Mormon grid style in the shape of the state of Utah. Settlers diverted water from nearby canyons to supply each home with clean water, and in 1911 the town was named the state’s “best kept and most progressive city.”

Unfortunately, the town was beset by economic difficulties, disease, and the harsh desert environment. When the LDS Church announced plans in 1915 for a temple in Hawaii, most of Iosepa’s residents returned to the islands and the rest relocated to Salt Lake City.

Today, all that remains of town proper are overgrown streets, debris piles and concrete stairways leading nowhere. Large trees and foundations mark the old home sites. The property is privately owned and will be the subject of an archaeological study this summer.

Some dreams die, but they need not be forgotten. The preserved cemetery is in pristine condition and is accessible to the public. Descendents of the town’s original residents gather there each Memorial Day Weekend to celebrate Iosepa’s heritage.

The remains of lesser-known ghost towns and historical sites pepper the county. What interests me more than timelines or mine production statistics is a ghost town’s human history.

Next time you see a pile of wooden planks where a house once stood, consider that every board was cut or imported by the industrious people who built these towns from scratch. Children were born there. People worked and spent their lives there. They died there and their bones still lie there under the dirt. The beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates its half-standing walls and scattered bricks.

TRIP TIPS

Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. While access restrictions can be frustrating, consider that most of the best preserved sites owe their continued existence to private ownership. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is www.ghosttowns.com.

NOTE: Many historical sites lie on private property or require traversing private property to gain access. Because ghost town ruins are often abused and vandalized, I don’t widely advertise details about their locations. Interested parties should check the ownership of a site and if needed obtain permission before visiting. It takes some legwork, but exploring ghost towns legally is an unforgettable experience. A good place to start is www.ghosttowns.com

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